It's nine in the morning and it looks like the world has poured into the streets of Manastur. This densely populated neighborhood of the Transylvanian city of Cluj bears witness to the scars of Communism and the hope of capitalism. Monolithic blocs of Soviet era housing contrast with the newly remodeled and stylishly decorated apartments of Romania's growing middle class who live inside them.
I use the crosswalk and observe the traffic signals but knowing that red lights mean little to many Romanian cabbies and deliverymen makes me feel like my life is in jeopardy. I've joined the crowd headed for the bus that takes commuters into the center of Cluj, home of the seat of government and a massive university. This morning I decide to hail a cab. I'm schlepping a laptop and a bag full of youth ministry tricks. It's impossible to negotiate the mosh pit on wheels without a free hand during rush hour.
I arrived from the States at noon yesterday and instead of jet lag I feel manic. Good thing. It's going to be a busy ten days. The cab creeps toward the Archdiocese through clogged streets never intended to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic load. I'm dropped off in front of the driveway, the only entrance through the walls of the complex that houses the Archdiocesan offices and a seminary.
Sorin is there waiting for me. An amiable young man of great piety with an infectious smile, this dedicated member of the Archdiocese staff is an accountant and so much more. He has arranged my program for the next week and a half and will ensure that I receive the logistical support needed to accomplish my work.
We go to see Bishop Vasile, the archdiocesan hierarch who oversees mission activity. The Bishop is a man of vision with an understated demeanor and a loyal following of clergy and laity alike. Many regard this former abbot of one of Romania's most prominent monasteries as a living saint. The Bishop's kind eyes dance winsomely as we review my full schedule.
I came to Romania to teach the Romanian Church some American youth ministry theories and techniques. We are going to make the most of the time that is available. Today is Wednesday and before I leave the following Friday, I will present three three-hour seminars covering youth ministry basics: two to clergy and one to college students and young adults. I will visit six different churches and a school and youth center, presenting ten sample youth ministry meetings and encouraging the formation of youth groups where they do not already exist. There will be two Hierarchical Divine Liturgies and lots of social eating.
The Romanian Church has a long and rich tradition. It has produced countless saints, monasteries that are spiritual treasure troves, and brilliant theologians. Even the brutalities of the Communist era could not extinguish the faith of Romania. For centuries the faith was passed through the family. Today there is no question that any young Romanian who worships regularly with his parents and practices the faith at home will benefit just as the children of past generations did.
Unfortunately, such young people are becoming the minority. And that is why I am here.
After the fall of Communism, secularism, consumerism, materialism, and the ideas of Western popular media began to influence Romanian society. Many in the Romanian Church believe that new approaches to youth ministry will help young people deepen their ties to Christ and His Church, especially those from homes where the Christian faith is only marginally practiced. Since American Orthodoxy functions and in many cases thrives in this type of hostile cultural environment, Romanians hope that we may have something valuable to offer them.
This trip has been six years in the making. In 2001, I led a mission team that ran a summer camp for Romanian at-risk adolescents for the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). I saw then that the Church in Romania might benefit from greater exposure to American youth ministry techniques. It wasn't until 2003 that Bishop Vasile and I discussed the possibility of further collaboration and service to the Archdiocese of Cluj.
In 2004, I spent three weeks in Cluj, studying the language and building bridges. The next year I led another mission team, and in 2006 I returned alone to run a summer camp. By that time I saw that I could serve more productively by building youth programs. I had developed reasonable fluency with the language, gotten to know many Romanian church workers, and came equiped with years of youth ministry experience. Bishop Vasile liked the plan and here I am.
It's Wednesday evening and we've converted the nave of an urban church into a youth meeting room. (I guess there is at least one advantage to not having pews.) Some religion teachers brought their pupils to church and I've arranged 80 middle-school teens into two concentric circles. They scream with delight as they participate in one of my favorite large-group ice-breakers. When the game finishes we form one large circle on the floor. Next comes a skit, followed by a lively discussion.
Then another game to break them up into smaller groups. They are given materials to encourage small group discussion. They are at an age when conversation comes hard but today they talk up a storm. One more game, this one with an implicit lesson, and then a wrap up discussion. An hour has elapsed since the opening and closing prayer but it seems like five minutes.
Their religion teachers approached me, "Where can we get material like that?" I give them my email and promise to send games and activities on a regular basis. It will be the first of many such requests.
On Friday morning I presented my second youth ministry seminar for clergy. About 15 of us are in the music classroom of the seminary. My computer is hooked up to an LCD projector and I've prepared an extensive lecture in Romanian addressing everything from the role of games in youth ministry to the basics of counseling. The three hours are over before we know it, and we head downstairs for a private lunch.
There is great camaraderie among the younger priests and they use this opportunity for lively discussions about a variety of topics. Sometimes they talk so fast that I can't follow. No problem. I'm grateful for the opportunity to tune out. In the past 44 hours I have done two hour-long parish youth programs and two three hour seminars.
As always, a translator works with me. Today Radu (a final year law student) bails me out of any linguistic jams. When doing the youth programs, the translator serves a double function. By giving me the freedom to teach entirely in English, it takes the outside expert phenomenon to a higher level. More importantly, teaching in American English implicitly counters the message that in order to be "modern" or "western" one must abandon Orthodoxy.
I go back to the apartment of my host family, Doru, Cristina and baby Maria (old friends who spent two years as faithful members of my parish in the States) long enough to brush my teeth and gather my materials. Sorin has arranged for someone to meet me in front of the bloc where I am staying and we take a cab to the parish of St. John the Evangelist.
We celebrate Holy Unction (the Orthodox healing service) in a wooden building that houses this new congregation, headed by the charismatic and energetic young priest Father Calin. The evening sun bakes the A-frame church that is filled with wall-to-wall faithful. After the anointing we assemble the youth on the front porch of the church.
Like last night's group and two others that I would later encounter, this is more of a young adult gathering. I use this opportunity to explain that we are going to do an hour's worth of activities, the purpose of which is not simply to bolster the faith of tonight's participants. Instead, I want them to see that running a meeting like this requires no special training and I hope to inspire them to form a parish-based group like this for themselves and for teens and grade-schoolers.
With the help of my translator, I run through a series of skits, games, and discussions, explaining my rationale and methodology every step of the way. They respond enthusiastically, and like so many other nights, after the meeting they compile a list of phone numbers and emails and make plans to form a group. As always, the hour flies by.
Sunday brings a day of extreme church. A two-and-a-half hour Hierarchical Liturgy is followed by an hour's worth of speeches honoring the birthday of a local professor. After a reception we head off to lunch at Bishop Vasile's residence.
Every dining experience with this humble man is unforgettable. Sure the food is good (a nun prepares a monastic cuisine that is simple but delightful), but the Bishop makes it special. He rarely sits at the head of the table and frequently asks me to bless the meal. Bishop Vasile pours the drinks and insists on serving himself last. His humility and piety are not a show. He is known for giving the money he receives to the poor.
We talk about the Church, plans for the future, the priesthood, and so much more. As I pour out my heart to him, I understand why the Bishop is such a renowned confessor. He is a good listener and is careful to speak slowly enough for me to understand him.
After lunch we are driven to the underground church at the University. Yes, this church is really underground. Romanians often build their sanctuaries from the bottom up. They dig a basement and set up worship. As money comes in, they build the above ground part of the church -- a process that can take years. We are there for a wedding of two young people that I know well from summer camps past.
The well-loved and wildly popular Father Ciprian leads the "Students' Church" and the local chapter of the church organization for college students and young adults. Today Father Ciprian will not celebrate. Instead he and his iconographer wife will serve as sponsors -- a role they have filled many times before for other couples.
Father Ciprian and Preotesa Corina are the real deal. With laughing eyes and rosy cheeks, Father is a cross between a young Santa and everyone's favorite uncle. It is no wonder that he is the spiritual father of hundreds. Preotesa's thoughtful spirituality, reputation as a gifted painter of icons, and chic but understated elegance command everyone's attention when she is present in a room. I feel blessed to be able to call them friends.
After the wedding I am whisked off by another former camp co-worker to have dinner with her parents and younger brother, another old camp pal. On the way we stop for Vespers at the neighborhood church. Mercifully, no program is scheduled.
I've known this priest for a couple of years and he attended my first seminar on Thursday. I'm not very certain if he was cool with the content of my lecture. Vespers ends and Father announces, "After he gives a brief sermon, Father Aris will lead a program for our youth."
I groan inwardly. I'm tired and have no materials with me. I put on my best face, size up the group, and plan the events that will consume the next 60 minutes.
Winging it has become second nature over the past few days. Every time I show up at a church, I have no idea what the size or composition of my audience will be. I assume that this evening will not be that much different. But it is.
The priest is so taken with the program that at its conclusion he insists that those present make a covenant to meet again as soon as possible. They agree to meet the following night. (I was told that after that meeting they agreed to meet again seven days later.) What I first regarded as a hassle has become an enormous blessing.
Tuesday morning I attend a school that is planning to start an after school program to keep kids off the streets. The priest and his assistant ask for my take on their plan. We chat and brainstorm for two hours, after which Father Claudiu runs me downtown for an audience with Metropolitan Bartolomeu. As Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Cluj, Vad, and Feleac and the Metropolitan of Cluj, Alba, Crisana and Maramures, Metropolitan Bartolomeu is the spiritual leader of millions. Even in his ninth decade of life, this scholar, preacher, liturgist and shepherd is still a commanding presence.
The Metropolitan blesses me and we sit across from his desk. He looks warmly at me with eyes that are crowned by eyebrows that remind me of Romanian haystacks. Like the Orthodox Church everywhere, news travels fast. The priests who sat through the seminars and witnessed the parish programs have been talking. His voice is like muffled thunder. "I hear 'Good News'," he puns. Sorin is with me. He can tell that the Metropolitan is pleased. Both of us breathe a sigh of relief.
It's Ascension Thursday and I'm standing around the altar of the Cathedral with five other priests, as Bishop Vasile stands at the head and two deacons execute their duties expertly. I've become accustomed to these VIP liturgies over the years. In 2005 I was one of seven priests who served Vigil and Liturgy at a monastery where 196,000 pilgrims had come for the Dormition of the Theotokos, an important Orthodox feast day.
I feel less like a liturgical fifth wheel today. Even so, the young priest next to me whispers instructions and I'm grateful. The Dean of the Cathedral and I are discretely visiting with each other. "How many years?" asks Father Octavian
"As what? A priest?" I respond.
"No, in the States," he clarifies.
All those mornings of getting up at 4:30 a.m. to study Romanian have paid off.
After Liturgy, Calin, Bishop Vasile's driver, takes me, two other clergy, and three seminarians to the Heroes' Cemetery for a religious civil ceremony honoring Cluj's war dead. Calin is a theology school grad with the personality of Mister Rogers and the driving skills of James Bond. Calin, the Bishop, and I have logged many miles together over the past four years that I have come to regard him as my little brother. One memorial service, two speeches, and a dozen wreath layings later, we go back to Bishop Vasile's for one last lunch.
At table with the Bishop and me are Calin and Sorin. It's a bittersweet moment. The past nine days have flown by. So much has been accomplished, but there is so much left to do. I have a family back home and I miss them terribly. But the men at this table and the three people at the bloc in Manastur have become a second family. As usual, the Bishop asks me to bless the meal. Tears are welling up and I can barely get the prayer out.
We visit. We recap the trip. We make tentative plans for a similar mission in May 2008. I promise to send youth ministry materials to Sorin for distribution. The Bishop has a gift for me, an exquisite icon of the Theotokos and a magnificent stergar, the cloth that is draped over icons in a Romanian home. Since it's a feast, we have a fried fish as the main course and ice cream and honey dew melon for dessert.
After lunch, Calin runs me up to Doru and Cristina's where we spend a melancholy evening of goodbyes.
"Thank you for doing so much for Romania," says Doru.
"No. I thank Romania for helping me to learn what it really means to be a priest."
Pending ecclesiastical approval, Father Aris will return to Romania in May 2008 to conduct more youth ministry training. His trips are largely self-funded. Persons wishing to support Fr. Aris' mission work can send their checks to:
Father Aris Romania Mission Trip
Holy Trinity Church
1931 Sumter Street
Columbia, SC 29201
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.